My mom and I had decided last summer that in addition to our trip to San Juan (where she grew up) we’d visit my uncle at his house on the island of Culebra, a few dozen miles to the east. Culebra only has about 2,000 people and is relatively unknown as far as Caribbean islands go; as a result, it has a very small airport and very limited airline service. One of the most reliable and frequent of these airlines is Air Flamenco, operating 9-passenger Britten-Norman Islanders out of San Juan’s Isla Grande airport (near Old San Juan and the cruise ship docks) to Culebra and its big brother Vieques.
We rode to the airport and saw that it was nice and sunny today - but we were getting worried about Tropical Storm/Depression Ana and where and when it might be coming by the next day. I’ve seen my share of tiny airports, and I always love them. Isla Grande (SIG) was no exception.
We met my uncle there and went inside. There weren’t any computer kiosks at the checkin desk, but then again, there weren’t any lines, either.
The waiting room. The portrait of the airport’s namesake at the end combined with the red chairs made it look oddly like some airport in a communist country... except for the big flashy ads on the walls, of course.
Sunday, August 16th
Air Flamenco N906GD
San Juan Isla Grande (SIG) - Culebra (CPX)
The three of us were the only three scheduled for this flight. We went to the “observation deck” (really, the door leading outside) and saw our plane pull in. My mom remarked “That’s our plane?! It’s that small? Are we going to be able to fit our bag in there?” which was pretty funny because she had done this flight twice before.
The spacious leather interior, featuring the latest in “bump your head on the ceiling” comfort technology
After the pilot seated us, I started explaining some of the instruments and VOR navigation to my uncle. The pilot must’ve overheard this because he asked “Are you a pilot?” “Well, I have 50 hours and just need to do my checkride” I replied. He said “Well, you should sit up front then!” Awesome.
Ignore the guy on the left...
I’m certainly glad he was flying because I have very little experience in Class C+ airspace and none whatsoever in tropical settings. San Juan ATC was speaking English, of course, but it was fast and thick with a Puerto Rican accent. If I were in charge, I’d have to say “say again?” a dozen times before we even started taxiing.
Takeoff was smooth, QUICK, and beautiful, certainly the most glamorous takeoff scenery I’ve seen since I started sitting in the front seats of an airplane.
Takeoff next to a cruise ship
San Juan down the runway
The pilot contacted San Juan and requested a cruising altitude of 1500 feet, VFR. They bumped him up to about 2600. I told him this was a big change for me, and he looked at me in shock when I told him that I flew a Cessna 172 at a normal cruising altitude of 8500 (with an airport at 4400). He told me that the biggest advantage of the Islander was that the plane was extremely forgiving... and that the biggest disadvantage is that it’s slow and climbs like a slug. He pointed to the big landing gear struts sticking down from the wings and then the airspeed indicator (we were going about 100kt... on 2 turboprops!) and said that he got the airplane up to 7500ft once before it couldn’t go any higher. I guess that’s why they call it an “Islander” not a Mountaineer.
Isla Verde and SJU
The (something something something) Moscoso Bridge
an American Eagle ATR landing
The (weekly?) Iberia A340 to Madrid parked on the ramp
The pilot called the CTAF and called a left base for the runway.
“Where’s the runway?” I asked
“Behind that hill” he said.
“So, we’re going to squeeze between those hills there?”
“You got it.”
There it is. Whoa.
Lined up for approach. Yeah, I said lined up.
Slipping around the hill and making the plane dance into its landing. We could hear the stall horn clicking and could hear the trees wooshing by right below us.
There’s a YouTube video that someone else shot a while ago that captures this landing pretty well. Of course, the only way to really experience it is to go yourself!
Views from my uncle’s house:
Overall, Culebra was a great place and I unfortunately only got to spend one night there. The storm actually came in the early morning and we decided to get out of there the next afternoon by way of the passenger ferry to Fajardo. After a long ride in an unofficial taxi (sort of a risk on our part) we got back to San Juan.
Hope you enjoyed the TR!